Let the Holidays Begin – Pac Rim Reunion in Saigon!

Alright, time to begin the holiday travel posts! I think I should start by explaining exactly what I had planned for a very extended holiday, one I’m still shocked went off without a hitch.

Hanging out with Lisa and Selina
Hanging out with Lisa and Selina

While I was given the green light to take almost three weeks off to travel, the first few days of my trip were a bit more complicated. From the very beginning of my stay here in Can Tho, I had always planned on spending Christmas Eve in Saigon, where this year’s Pac Rim group (including several staff members from my trip) would be holding their holiday banquet. I was beyond excited to see old friends, meet the new students, and generally wax nostalgic. A few days after the party my friend Annin was going to meet me in Saigon, and we would then travel around Vietnam. Our friends Lisa and Pase, staff for this year’s Pac Rim, would also be joining us for a few days during their holiday. Everything was coming together and it was looking great!

A few weeks before the party, I realized that while I was told I could have time off, my university course’s final exam was scheduled right between the Pac Rim banquet and meeting up with Annin. This meant that my schedule would have to go as follows: Dec 23 – bus up to Saigon and hang out with Pac Rim. Dec 24 – Pac Rim Banquet! Dec 25 – bus back to Can Tho, teach in the evening. Dec 26 – Administer final exam in morning, finish grading all 50 tests in afternoon, and bus back to Saigon at night to hang out with Lisa and check into hotel with Annin.

Yes, it was a bit of a crazy schedule, and yes, grading took far longer than anticipated, but it all worked out fine in the end.

Now, for what you’re really interested in – how was it meeting up with this year’s Pac Rim?

The banquet marked the end of Elisabeth and Nima's final Pac Rim, and a new director will take over for the second semester.
The banquet marked the end of Elisabeth and Nima’s final Pac Rim, and a new director will take over for the second semester.

Well, it was great to see old friends and say hi to a few of the students whom I had met back on campus. I spent most of my time running errands with Lisa and Selina and trying to be helpful with party preparations. I loved hanging out with old friends and getting to know the new staff members, but one thing was made abundantly clear: three years is a lot of time, and I am definitely no longer a student. This sounds obvious, but spending time with current students really hit home to me how much I’ve changed over the past three years. And, while I loved my experience and wouldn’t change it for the world, I’m not interested in going backwards. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have an awesome time seeing everyone.

Realizations aside, I spent a lot of time catching up with Elisabeth and Nima, who had led my trip. This year is Elisabeth’s final year as Pac Rim director, and she and Nima were leaving the trip mid-year to allow a new director to step up. It was great to see them, and we had a wonderful time together. On the second day in Saigon, Selina and I snuck into the Grand Saigon’s breakfast buffet to eat with our friends (and, let’s face it – our hotel’s breakfast was not nearly as nice), and we ended up having a lovely meal with EB and Nima, talking about the highs and lows of this trip, their plans for 2015, and how much I missed non-white bread while in Vietnam. Elisabeth was very cute and surprised Selina and me with a loaf of wheat bread later that night, which was so nice, and much appreciated.

Thanks for the wheat bread, Elisabeth!
Thanks for the wheat bread, Elisabeth!

Other highlights from the visit include going out to an American-style BBQ restaurant, where I was super excited to eat ribs, mac n’ cheese, cornbread and beer that wasn’t mostly water (Vietnam is great for many things, but beer is not one of them). Earlier in the day we went out for coffee near the hotel at a famous Vietnamese chain, Trung Nguyen. I was shocked to see that prices in Saigon were basically double what I would normally pay in Can Tho, but I guess that’s how it goes. Strangely, it took around 45 minutes for us to get take away coffee, so these days I’m far less enamoured with this brand of coffee shop (although if I bring anyone back coffee from Vietnam, it will probably be from here – it’s widely known as some of the best quality coffee and it’s very easy to find).

Dinner at an American-style BBQ joint. The ribs were delicious!
Dinner at an American-style BBQ joint. The ribs were delicious!

After coffee I set out with Selina and Lisa’s friend Linda to try and find the offices of Saigon Artbook, whom I had read was selling decks of cards printed with illustrations by local artists and representative of Vietnam. It was a bit of a long trek, and once we found the building it was clear that it was not usually used as a storefront – there was no sign, no markers to indicate where to go, and the first floor of the building was a cell phone shop. But in the end we were successful, and everyone bought a beautiful, very unique deck of cards.

The illusive Vietnam card deck! I had been looking for them for almost 2 weeks, and the day I left for Saigon I happened to see a notice that they had a limited printing available. It must have been fate :)
The illusive Vietnam card deck! I had been looking for them for almost 2 weeks, and the day I left for Saigon I happened to see a notice that they had a limited printing available. It must have been fate 🙂

Moving on – the actual banquet was lovely. I sat at a table with a few friends, and a student whose parents were both Pac Rim alumni. It was really interesting to hear about both the current trip and his parents’ experience in the 80s. We were also treated to this year’s mid-year video, which I must admit was very well done, and this group was clearly better at remembering to film things… Oh well! After the video the students presented EB and Nima with scrapbooks as a parting gift, and it all got a bit emotional. I started tearing up for sure. All of EB’s students were invited up to give a hug, but Selina and I weren’t sure if we should sit back and let this year’s students do their thing. Eventually we were prodded into going up by our table mates, just in time for the group to start singing a song we absolutely didn’t know. It was a bit awkward, but funny. After hugs, it was time for a dance party, which was a blast, and a fitting way to bid farewell to Elisabeth, who truly shines on the dance floor.

Traffic on Christmas Eve - photo taken from the Saigoneer (nothing I actually saw was this bad)
Traffic on Christmas Eve – photo taken from the Saigoneer (nothing I actually saw was this bad)

As we all know, after the party comes the afterparty! Selina and I went back to Lisa’s room and played drinking games with the other staff and our friend Jewel, who was the coordinator for the student program assistants in Hanoi, and a surprise party guest. We hadn’t seen her in three years, so it was great to catch up. Once everyone had gathered, we headed out to Saigon’s backpacker district for a few drinks and some dancing. Little did we realize that Christmas Eve is one of the craziest times to be out in Saigon, as traffic was NUTS. Luckily we didn’t have far to go, and when we returned to the hotel around 4am, it was significantly quieter.

Drinks in the backpacker district
Drinks in the backpacker district (photo by Selina)

Anyway, in the end I’m glad everything worked out and that I was able to meet up with the group, if only for a little while. And who knows, maybe I’ll see them again before the year is out – they’re headed to some pretty cool places, and the travel bug hasn’t left me yet 🙂

Elevator selfie!
Elevator selfie! Hanging out with the Pac Rim staff on Christmas Eve
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